Sunday, November 25, 2007

Voting with their feet

On Friday, the Washington Post reported some of the most hopeful news to date regarding the Iraq war, namely that some of the country's 2.2 million refugees were beginning to trickle home. It's not clear from the article whether the number of people returning exceeds the number of people leaving. The article also notes that many are returning because they've exhausted their resources outside the country. Nevertheless, the fact that many people feel secure enough to return and attempt to resume their lives in Iraq is good news. This is literally a case of people being willing to "walk the walk."

This news should remove most doubts that the surge has been successful with respect to its military objective of improving security. Military and civilian casualties are now back to levels last seen in 2005. These levels are still unacceptably high (Iraq in 2005 wasn't exactly a "safe" country), but if they represent a trend, further improvements may be possible.

Despite this evidence of important benefits from the military surge, it is still not clear whether the policy is or was worthwhile as a whole. The security benefits that we are seeing now have to be balanced against the enormous costs--hundreds of additional U.S. troops killed and thousands more wounded, the depletion of military readiness, and billions of dollars each month in additional taxpayer costs. While a small draw down of troops is beginning, troop levels are still substantially above their pre-surge levels, and we will be adding to the costs of the surge for many more months to come. An analysis by Democrats on Congress' Joint Economic Committee puts the current tab for the Iraq war at $1.3 trillion (around $4,250 per person) and projects the complete tab if administration policies are continued at $3.5 trillion (just over $9,000 per person).

More disappointing is that the primary objective of the surge, which was to enable political reconciliation among the Iraqis, still has not been met. There have been some hopeful signs, such as the cease-fire by the Madhi militia and the increased willingness of some Sunni groups to cooperate with the government. These and other developments could mean that when the surge exhausts itself this spring, the Iraqis may fall into an uneasy, informal living arrangement--something well short of the civil war that the country was experiencing earlier this year but also well short of full and permanent reconciliation. At this point, informal arrangements may be all that we can hope for.

We also have to acknowledge that some elements of the administration's strategy are working at cross purposes. The "bottom-up" approach of working with (and arming) local groups who currently support some of our objectives may be undercutting the "top-down" strategy of national political reconciliation. There are considerable risks that when our troop levels are reduced, the informal arrangements will quickly collapse, with much more terrible levels of violence owing to the influx of arms. We may be buying temporary security at the cost of even greater violence down the road.

The returning Iraqi refugees appear to be betting on some type of reconciliation. Let's hope they're right.